Washington: As President Barack Obama thanked former president Bill Clinton for "the extraordinary humanitarian effort" in securing the release of two US journalists from North Korea, the story behind Clinton's trip started unfolding.
Journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee arrived back in the US on Wednesday morning with Clinton, who flew to North Korea to negotiate their release after they were sentenced to a labour camp.
While Obama never spoke directly with Clinton about this issue, negotiations were under way within the administration, according to two senior Obama administration officials who described to CNN on background how Clinton's mission to Pyongyang to secure the release of two US journalists imprisoned by North Korea evolved.
The mission unfolded after it was conveyed to the administration that North Koreans were willing to grant the two journalists amnesty if a high-level envoy, such as former president Clinton, were willing to travel to Pyongyang.
There was no shortage of envoys ready to travel to North Korea and negotiate the women's release. But some heavyweights including former vice president Al Gore, a co-founder of the media outfit Current TV the women were working for when they were arrested, were turned down. In the end, it was Clinton whom North Korea wanted.
During the weekend of July 24-25, Clinton spoke with National Security Adviser Gen Jim Jones about his willingness to take on this mission. Clinton ultimately agreed to go on the mission but made it very clear in every communication that this was purely a humanitarian effort.
Clinton also wanted to make sure, based on the due diligence of the national security team, that there was a high likelihood of success if he went.
"We were convinced this would be the result, and based on that we could advise president Clinton that his trip was going to be successful," one official cited by CNN said.
State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said on Wednesday, "We did our homework ... to make sure that if president Clinton did take this trip, that we would be able to ... win the freedom for these two."
Kelly said that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also had a role in the mission, adding that "The State Department was very involved." More details, he said, will be released.
Administration officials also said it was always made clear by Clinton and the national security team that this would be a humanitarian mission.
Clinton's humanitarian help was not lost on Obama who reached out to the journalists' families on Tuesday night.
"I want to thank president Bill Clinton - I had a chance to talk to him - for the extraordinary humanitarian effort that resulted in the release of the two journalists," he said at the White House.
"My hope is that the families that have been reunited can enjoy the next several days and weeks understanding that because of the efforts of president Clinton and Gore they are able to be with each other once again."
First Published: Thursday, August 06, 2009, 12:31